Of the problems that afflict our younger pets, infestation with intestinal roundworms is one of the most common. The typically thin, but pot-bellied pup or kitten is the classic example of roundworm infection, for it is this type of worm that is the most serious in the young animal. As animals mature, they develop a certain amount of immunity to these worms. There'll often be a few in the intestines but most tend to "hibernate" in the tissues of their so-called "host". If they've picked a male or a spayed female to hibernate in, their luck is out - their life cycle will go no further. But if, by chance, they picked an unspayed female, they can lie dormant until they are mobilised by the animal's changing hormone levels during pregnancy.
In dogs, this means that immature forms of the worms can cross into the young via the placenta so that already when the pups are born, they may have maturing worms inside them. After birth, larval worms can pass into both puppies and kittens through their mother's milk. Naturally this will be the first exposure to these parasites for young pups and kittens which can soon have large numbers of worms inside them. Failure to gain weight, and indeed loss of condition, is the immediate result, but if large numbers of worms are present, they may cause severe bowel irritation or even completely block the intestine.
But it's not just the roundworms that like to make their home in the insides of our pets. Tapeworms are frequent visitors as well. Have you ever noticed small white wriggly "things" that look a bit like grains of rice, around your pet's bottom or on its faeces? These are likely to be segments shed from tapeworms in your pet's intestine. These particular worms found in both dogs and cats, are commonly called "flea" tapeworms, because the larval stages need to develop inside a flea. The cat or dog becomes re-infected when it swallows the flea during self-grooming. Although these tapeworms can grow up to half a metre long, they don't usually cause too many problems apart from the irritation those "grains of rice" cause around the anus!
Other worms, including the blood-sucking hookworm, and the whipworm, can cause more severe problems in dogs, but these are much less common.
So how do you go about dealing with the problem of intestinal worms? With the possibility of so many unwelcome internal visitors, regular worming becomes an essential to good pet health. Any adult animals, cats and dogs, should be wormed every three months to prevent re-infection, but breeding animals should be done before mating and during the pregnancy as well, to reduce the passing of roundworms to the young. However inevitably, pups and kittens will carry at least some worms, and in order to reduce the amount of damage these can cause, young animals need more frequent worming. An initial course at two-week intervals for six weeks, starting as early as two weeks of age, should be followed by monthly treatment up to six months of age.
You need to make sure that you use the appropriate medication. Very young animals only need treatment for roundworms, but once they reach three months, they may have tapeworms as well, so you'll need to ensure the treatment you're using covers all types of worm - check with your veterinarian if you are unsure. Don't forget that the flea is an essential part of the life cycle of the common tapeworm, so control of this pesky insect is important too!
One final word. The worms that inhabit the bowels of our pets are not the same as those that bless human intestines , so if your pet has worms, there's no need to rush off and worm the kids - unless you have reason to think they have worms of their own!